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I recently reviewed the 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. One of the key takeaways from this book was the way it got me thinking about how to be more productive. In this post I present the results of this thinking – a list of ideas for improving your efficiency and generally being more productive in life. What you do with any spare time you free up is up to you!
If, like myself, you spend the majority of your working day at a desk it’s very likely email will be a huge drain on your productivity. The BBC recently ran an article describing email as a modern-day epidemic. Over the past couple of months I’ve been experimenting with different measures to streamline the way I use email. Here are some suggestions I have implemented myself which you may want to consider:
Email notifications are hugely disruptive. When you’re working and you see a popup appear in the corner of your screen (normally accompanied by a distracting noise) it’s ever-too-tempting to click on the message. If you take just one piece of advice from this post please try turning off email notifications! You can read how to do this in Outlook here. But don’t stop at your desktop – turn email notifications off on your other devices like your laptop, tablet, phone and so on. The impact of this is enormous; I know because I’ve just done it!
Spending all day dipping in and out of email is inefficient. Generally speaking, the less frequently you check your email, the more time you will have to focus on more value-adding activity. This is a diagram borrowed from the 4 Hour Work Week to illustrate why you shouldn’t continually check your email throughout the day:
You can further increase productivity by putting a little thought into how you actually use email, for example, you should try to respond to email in a way which doesn’t warrant any further conversation, thus avoiding the need for back-and-forth messages or the need for further replies when you’re busy. You should also review your settings and do everything you can to speed up your email (I always change my settings to close the original email when I hit reply or forward).
Always be wary of hitting ‘Reply To All’, as this can open up a wide range of opinion, some of which might not be necessary. Another tip is to time when your emails are sent (Outlook instructions here, or if you use Gmail, consider installing something like Boomerang). By setting individual or bulk rules to send email at a certain time you can aim for them to be read when people won’t reply, or won’t reply immediately. Alternatively, you could just use this tip to CC your boss and give him the illusion that you’re working late 😉
I wrote a separate blog post about this called Digital Decluttering where I walk you through the process of liberating your inbox. In short, I used a piece of software called Unroll.me to identify email lists I was subscribed to, then I unsubscribe from nearly all of them. After, this I searched my inbox for the word ‘Unsubscribe’ and found a few remaining newsletter which I also unsubscribed to. I then deleted all unnecessary RSS feeds going into my inbox and removed myself from non-essential work emails, like order confirmations (nice as it was to watch orders being placed it added no value for me to do this!).
Computers are another potential black hole for productivity. Use them wisely and you become their master. Use them badly and you become their slave. Here are some tips for avoiding the latter.
Cluttered desktops kill productivity. Prune through all your shortcuts regularly and only keep the ones you use often. You shouldn’t have many shortcuts – I’ve just looked and I have 12 on my desktop – plus links to another 12 programs in my Quick Launch bar. Organisation is key to being productive – both physical and electronic. I can be a bit OCD when it comes to some things (like the way I organize photo albums) but I bet I can find things quicker than most people!
On a related note, it’s worth knowing all the common keyboard shortcuts. And if you write a lot and want to take things up a notch, learn to touch-type.
I’ve been an advocate of multiple monitors for a very long time. About 10 years ago, I went from one screen to two screens; a couple of years later I upgraded to three screens, but I didn’t get on with them, so I went back to two and have been there ever since. Nowadays virtually everyone at my company who works at a computer uses two screens. Two monitors are particularly useful for things like web development, design, blogging, order processing, CRM and so on because you can work in one window and have a preview in the other one. Bill Gates has long been a champion of using multiple monitors. If you haven’t tried using multiple monitors yet, you definitely should.
Start-up programs not only kill your productivity, they kill your computer. And if your computer is slow, you are as well. Too many programs means it takes your computer far longer than it should to boot up, then when it has booted, it will be a lot slower than it could be. Don’t underestimate the impact of removing unnecessary programs. Background processes can create their own popups and notifications, along with opportunities to cause glitches, even crash your machine. There are lots of articles online to show you how to remove start-up programs. One of the best I have come across is the Wikihow Guide To Removing Startup Programs.
Computers are much faster than they used to be, especially if you have a well-tuned machine, but that doesn’t mean you should buy the cheapest one you can find. Moore’s Law means processing power will double every two years, but as computing power advances, so too does the demand of the software we run them. Ever tried putting a beefy program on an old computer? It will crawl along. And while the bargain-basement assortment of tablets, phones and computers is huge, this doesn’t mean bottom-end machines are any good.
I have always been a firm believer that you should make a sufficient investment in IT, be it for business or personal use, aiming for the maximum impact with your budget. Cheap electronics become redundant more quickly and they are far more likely to fail. As they saying goes, buy cheap and buy twice! Always try to buy a machine with a decent amount of grunt. A few seconds here and a few seconds there ever time you launch a program won’t seem much but over time it really adds up. Remember- if you can save 6 minutes a day it will save you 36.5 hours over the course of a year – that’s an entire working week.
If you spend a lot of time online, as I do, it will pay dividends to master your internet browser. Personally I’m a big fan of Google Chrome but that’s just me. Whatever browser you use, have a good look at the Extensions which you would find useful. Chances are an extension will exist to do virtually everything you can think of, from blocking adverts to taking screenshots. If you’re feeling geeky you could even create your own extension, or tweak an existing one to make it do what you want (I wrote an article a couple of years ago about how to highlight Google search results).
Being logged into your browser saves an inordinate amount of time, too. Another article I wrote was about how to sync your browser settings in Chrome. Doing this means all my Bookmarks, Passwords, History and so on are up to date no matter what machine I am using- they are synchronised across my desktop browser, laptop browser and mobile phone. Other tips include tweaking your browser settings to display mobile sites on a desktop.
Oh and don’t forget to have a neat, logical order to your bookmarks! Just like your desktop, a pile of disorganised bookmarks can be a real time-sponge if you don’t keep on top of it. And set your most visited website as your homepage (for most people this will more than likely be a certain search engine).
Your mobile phone is possibly the biggest productivity killer in your life. It will interrupt you at any time, day or night, no matter what you might be doing. About 6 months ago I started to keep my phone on silent 90% of the time. To my surprise, it had no impact on anything. Anyone calling me would go to my answerphone. If it was important they would leave a message. If it wasn’t important they wouldn’t bother. Either way, I stopped getting interrupted. Instant messaging was also unaffected. Now, when I look at my phone, I’ll normally have a few texts to reply to as a ‘batch’, which is much more efficient than replying to them individually as they arrive, often sparking unnecessary dialogue. This is the same rationale as batch-processing email.
If someone needs to contact me urgently (which is incredibly rare) people can always hunt me down via friends, family, colleagues.
Review the Apps on your phone and get rid of anything you haven’t used for a couple of weeks. Given that most Apps are free, people tend to download tons of them, use them for a brief period, then leave them on their phone. This slows down your handset – there are unnecessary updates, notifications and processes whirring away in the background. I recently removed all banking apps because I do all my banking on my computer, plus all games (I take a view that a mobile phone shouldn’t be used for gaming – this is what my PS Vita is for and it’s far better than any phone).
Be strategic about the shortcuts on your home screen. Everything you use frequently should be there. I use a program called Nova Launcher to replace the stock Android home screen. I talk about this in more detail in my article on the need for personalisation.
I used to keep one mobile phone charger. This wasn’t a smart move – all my eggs were in one basket and as soon as my charger was broke/lost/stolen/left at someone’s house it was a real inconvenience. Nowadays, I always make sure I have a number of phone chargers with me. I keep one at home, one at work, one in my car and one in my bag. Doing this means I never have to remember to take a charger with me and if one stops working I can simply use a different one.
You can apply this theory to lots of different things, for example, sunglasses. I keep a pair in my car, a pair in my house and another pair in my weekend bag. Again, I don’t have to remember to take sunglasses with me. I do the same with toiletries, too; keeping a full set of toiletries in my house, another in my car and a third in my bag. Prior to doing this I would find myself constantly packing, unpacking and repacking my bag every time I went away somewhere. I find it useful keeping a bag to hand which I can simply grab every time I stay somewhere, without having to run round the house like an idiot gathering my belongings together (plus I’m always guaranteed to forget something).
If email is a modern day epidemic when it comes to time consumption, social media must be a pretty close second. I’m not going to preach about how you should avoid social media – this isn’t practical in today’s world – especially if growing your personal brand online is important for your business. There are, however, a couple of tricks I have picked up to streamline social media and make it less of a time-killer (which, in turn, gives you more time to do other things).
You should review all email notification settings across your social media profiles. By default they are all set to be very aggressive with how frequently they contact you, often sending you emails at every possible opportunity. I can’t really advise on what works best here – it’s a personal thing – but it’s worth casting your eye over your settings and seeing if you can remove anything non-critical. You can tweak your notification and email settings on the most popular social sites here:
LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/settings/ (select ‘Communications’)
It’s very inefficient to keep social media accounts up to date without using automation software like Hootsuite or Buffer (I use Buffer myself though Hootsuite is also excellent). This allows you to ‘batch process’ updates which is far more efficient than uploading one post at a time. On top of this, I use twitterfeed to automate the sharing of blog posts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn by taking the RSS feed and plugging it into my accounts. And I use ManageFlitter to keep on top of my Twitter followers.
All of these are worth experimenting with if you haven’t used them before. Truth be told, I seldom use my Twitter account but my account gives the illusion that I do. For negligible effort I have a decent, ever-increasing following which generates a reasonable amount of traffic to my blogs and websites.
Reading is the easiest way to shortcut learning. Books are normally written by experts in fields who condense years of hard work and experience into a book which can take you just a few hours to read.
The benefits of reading are substantial. Warren Buffer said “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do.” The best way to invest in yourself I have come across is to read. And the more you read, the better you will get at reading. You will be able to read faster, you will be able to remember more, it’s a self-improving practice. Someone I have recently discovered online is Tai Lopez who is a massive proponent of reading. In this video he explains why he has just spent $800 on books:
Another technique I have recently adopted is to highlight books as I read them. I do this because I can re-read them in 10 minutes whenever I feel the need, just by reading the highlighted sections. A lot of books are mostly ‘filler’ – people perceive value in thick books with lots of words in them – yet the actual substance or ‘essence’ of a book can often be summarized in very few words.
You could take this technique one step further and write a one page summary (or, alternatively, review books on your blog like me :-)). The combination of highlighting and reviewing books will allow you to retain all key information.
I cannot emphasize enough the benefits of reading to make yourself more productive. Some of the best ideas I have ever had have been a direct result of reading books (particularly autobiographies of famous business people). Tim Ferris says that if you want to quickly educate yourself on a subject to a level above 99% of the general population, simply read the top 3 books in a particular niche. Reading is extremely powerful.
Blogs, newspapers and magazines are also a great source of information, along with whitepapers, forums and presentation slides. Recently I have found SlideShare a brilliant source for gleaning valuable information quickly.
When you’re in the supermarket, always try to select groceries with a longer shelf life. All stores employ people to put the items with the shortest sell by date at the front of shelves (I know this because I used to do it), so you’ll need to reach towards the back of the shelf for items with the longest expiry date. The food you buy will taste better and last longer, meaning fewer trips to the supermarket, as you won’t have to buy food as often.
Another tip which I have doing since my student days is buying frozen vegetables. Frozen veg is great because it saves you time peeling and chopping fresh veg, but you still get the ‘greens’ your mother would want you to.
Lists also make you more efficient when shopping. If you go shopping and only buy things you need, it will save time getting distracted. You can write a paper list, or you could try using a shopping app.
Alternatively, to avoid going to the supermarket all together, simply do all your shopping online (I do this).
I used to spend ages buying wine, reading the back of bottles and comparing prices. Nowadays, I adopt an approach which allows me to spend a maximum of about one minute in the wine isle. It goes like this:
The first step (finding wine which has been marked down) is important because wine is highly taxed. Consequently, there is a correlation between the amount you send on wine and the quality (there are, of course, exceptions to every rule but the general trend is that cheap wine is going to be worse than more expensive wine). The second step (looking for a mark of quality) will increase the likelihood that what you’re drinking won’t be too bad. These two steps mean the odds are in your favour to pay a half-decent price for a half-decent bottle of wine.
You can introduce other variables depending on your personal preference, like grape variety or country or origin. If anything this helps speed up the process; as soon as I find a marked-down, award-winning New Zealand Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc it goes in my trolley!
It’s worth adding a note about what to do after you’ve been to the supermarket. The best tip I have for productivity in the kitchen is to cook large meals then freeze them in individual portions. The freezer is your ally – make the most of it!
Think about where you keep everything you own (in your house, in your bag, in your car) and get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last 3 months. Arrange everything in the most efficient way. Office draws are a good example – people often arrange these incredibly inefficiently, or don’t arrange them at all and they merely ‘evolve’ over time – you should ensure everything you use most frequently is closest to hand. Apply this same theory everywhere – to your car, your wardrobe, your wallet/handbag, kitchen etc etc. Periodically reviewing how everything is laid out can become a bit of a game. Don’t view this as time wasted or procrastinating – time spent organizing yourself properly will pay for itself many times over.
Finding ways to do two things at once is one of the best productivity tips I know of. You could try some workplace exercises while you’re on the phone, or listen books on tape during your daily commute. Maybe you could listen to a podcast while you’re exercising? Feeding your brain and your body at the same time is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
I have started using double-sized mugs and pint glasses when I make myself a drink at work. The upshot of this is that I only have to make myself a drink half as frequently as I used to, which allows me to keep working when I’m ‘in the zone’. There are also plenty of benefits associated with staying hydrated while you’re working.
When I’m on the road – be it visiting a customer or just grabbing lunch – I have gotten into the habit of parking in the outskirts of a car park. Wherever you are there is normally a bit of a dog fight around the main entrance, which I try to avoid. From my experience, parking near the entrance is a false economy – yes, it gets you closer to where you need to be, but there are normally so many vehicles trying to do the same that it actually takes less time to park further away and simply walk.
Taking breaks frequently keeps you fresh. Too many times in the past I have found myself staring at a screen until I’m cross-eyed and completely unproductive. Taking breaks may seem like you’re doing nothing but you can’t be productive all the time. The second best tip I have to be productive at work is to take breaks regularly. So what’s the best tip for being productive at work?
Richard Branson said that the number one tip for being productive is to exercise regularly and I completely agree with him. Taking the time to look after yourself physically is paramount to being productive. It’s also important to eat/drink healthy and get enough sleep.